Saracens 44 Newcastle 20: Farrell survives warm 'welcome to rugby'

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The Independent Online

Andy Farrell played yesterday. No, honestly. After 18 months of Lord Lucan-like invisibility, the great aristocrat of 13-a-side rugby materialised at Vicarage Road for his 15-man debut.

It lasted a little over a quarter of an hour plus injury time, during which he clattered a couple of Newcastle backs with heavy tackles, took a decent catch towards the tail of an attacking line-out and received a generous helping of shoe pie from his opponents. He also conceded a penalty for a technical infringement on the floor, but never fear. He will figure out the rules soon enough.

It is also reasonable to suggest that he will meet far tougher opponents than Newcastle as he navigates his way through the Premiership. The Tynesiders were never less than threatening behind the scrum, but their pack was so weak that the likes of Toby Flood and Matthew Burke found themselves whistling in the face of a hurricane.

The fact that three of Saracens' five tries fell to front-rowers, and that the impressive No 8 Ben Russell accounted for a fourth as the visitors were shunted over their own line, tells its own story. The ritual rucking of Farrell on the floor was about the only thing the Newcastle pack achieved all afternoon.

Many knowledgeable union figures, some of them current players, are utterly baffled at the decision to run Farrell in the back row, rather than at inside centre. While there was nothing in yesterday's proceedings to prove them right, there was nothing to prove them wrong either. The game was won twice over by the time the former Great Britain league captain jogged into public view - his colleagues were 30-15 up and going away - so there was no pressure on him to do anything much apart from avoid a fresh calamity of the orthopaedic kind. This he managed quite comfortably.

Saracens' Alan Gaffney was pleased. "There was a 'welcome to rugby' moment when they caught him on the floor, but that will have done him good," said the director of rugby. Might he feature against Sale at Edgeley Park on Friday? "All options are open. He might play on Friday for the first team, or the following Monday for the seconds, or the Thursday after that for the seconds. We'll work out the best way forward."

If the jury is still out on Farrell, the judge has already donned the black cap in respect of the Newcastle pack. Matt Cairns and Kevin Yates nailed five-pointers from driving mauls early in the second quarter. These scores put Jamie Noon's opening try for the visitors in its proper perspective, and while James Grindal quickly cut the deficit to eight points by finishing off a smart move at the front of a line-out, this was achieved in the absence of Hugh Vyvyan, the Saracens lock, who had been dispatched to the cooler for ball-killing.

Predictably enough, the home team continued onwards and upwards the moment they were restored to full strength, claiming three tries between the 48th and 67th minutes, only one of them through the good offices of their back division.

"I'm not belittling the Newcastle pack, but we knew their strength lay outside," Gaffney said. The Australian is a sharp tactician, but he hardly needed to be Carwyn James to work that one out.

Saracens: Tries Cairns, Yates, Russell, Sorrell, Byrne; Conversions Jackson 5; Penalties Jackson 3. Newcastle: Tries Noon, Grindal, Visser; Conversion Flood; Penalty Burke.

Saracens: D Scarbrough (T Castaignède, 64) ; K Ratuvou, K Sorrell, B Johnston, R Penney; G Jackson (R Laidlaw, 80), A Dickens (J Rauluni, 68); K Yates, M Cairns (S Byrne, 52), C Visagie (B Broster, 67), H Vyvyan, S Raiwalui (capt; T Ryder, 52), K Chesney (A Farrell, 64), D Seymour, B Russell.

Newcastle: M Burke (capt); O Phillips, J Noon, T May, T Visser; T Flood, J Grindal (H Charlton, 52; T Dillon 69); M Ward (D Wilson, 52), M Thompson (R Batty, 64), R Morris, A Perry, A Buist, M McCarthy (B Wilson, 69), C Harris (B Woods, 34), P Dowson (E Gesinde, 79).

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).

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